RTA Zero Fare pilot study — phase 7a for the region

RTA has been pushing for enhanced transit for nearly two decades.

The regional business community’s efforts have included research via tours to other cities, multiple polls, and three successful transit referenda, and of course our ongoing Freeway And Street-based Transit (FAST) study.

In 2018, RTA endorsed the pursuit of expanded zero fare for everyone – eliminating passes and fares to make transit a more attractive, useful, and used option.

With communities from the Washington state capital of Olympia to Kansas City, MO implementing or advancing zero fare for everyone in the past several months – and with fares in our region currently suspended due to the pandemic – RTA has initiated a study of what an appropriate next pilot could be for our region.

With transportation the second-largest expense for most households after housing, this is a clear equity issue and opportunity for our region.

To be clear:  zero fare policies for transit have continuously expanded in the Triangle over the past three decades, including university systems (e.g., NC State Wolfline, zero fare initially for all university users, and then later for the general public, as well as Duke University Transit for university users), all Chapel Hill Transit patrons, everyone 18 and under regionwide, and now all seniors ride zero fare as of last summer. Those collectively constitute 6 phases of progressive expansion of zero fare policy in our market.

In the spirit of continued progress, we now refer to our study as phase 7a of our region’s zero fare journey.

Durham County is also looking into the potential, and potential cost, of zero fare for their entire GoDurham system as part of their updated transit study that formally kicked off earlier this week — let’s call that phase 7b of the region’s zero fare pathway.

RTA Leadership Team member HDR is doing outstanding work on our RTA zero fare pilot study — they have interviewed all local transit providers, completed outreach meetings with several transit agencies with zero fare policies (including agencies in Washington state, Colorado, South Carolina, and Massachusetts, as well as Chapel Hill Transit here), and have begun an extensive literature review and analysis.

To get our expectations properly set:  while I don’t know what the recommendations from the HDR study team will be, my guess is that they will propose at least 2-3 options for the region to consider as our market continues its zero fare journey.

We have requested that each option or recommendation meet the following three criteria:

  • Create benefit to the transit user, current or new
  • Provide information or data for the region about zero fare performance; and
  • Minimize financial risk for the participating agency.

While we will have to wait to see the recommendations, my sense is that there are several potential zero fare pilot options for our market that could meet all of those criteria.

Thinking further to potential implementation, my view is that a decision by one or more agencies to engage in a pilot implementation will likely come down to the following:

  • The goals of the community, plus
  • The financial reality or requirements associated with all aspects of a particular pilot framework, and perhaps
  • The ability to “undo” the pilot, or alternatively, a focus on only considering potential pilot arrangements that a community feels it could financially live with indefinitely.

Our new RTA enhanced transit task force will be activated later this summer to engage on the zero fare effort, including potential ways to simplify implementation and maximize the likelihood of success. The task force will also focus on the RTA FAST study being conducted by RTA member firms VHB, Stantec, and Catalyst Design, as well as the regional commuter rail study.

This is an exciting time to rethink what transit is and what it can be for our community and region. I am pleased that the regional business community is leading on these efforts in concert with a number of outstanding partners in our public sector.

Let’s get moving,


Joe Milazzo II, PE
Executive Director
Regional Transportation Alliance


RTA is the voice of the regional business community on transportation


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